U.S. Brings New Charges Against Julian Assange In War Logs, State Cables Case

May 23, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 8:27 pm

Updated at 5:54 p.m. ET

Prosecutors are bringing a slate of new charges against Julian Assange, including alleged violations of the Espionage Act, raising the stakes for his prospective extradition from the United Kingdom.

A grand jury in Northern Virginia has returned a superseding indictment with 17 more charges against the WikiLeaks founder. It follows an earlier case brought against Assange in connection with the alleged help he gave to then-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to compromise U.S. government computer networks.

Assange is being charged for what officials call his "alleged complicity in illegal acts" involving Manning and "for agreeing and attempting to obtain" information that compromised national security.

Manning provided Assange with war logs, State Department cables, assessments of Guantanamo detainees and other materials.

Said U.S. Attorney Zach Terwilliger: "The United States has only charged Assange with publishing a narrow set of classified documents" that included the names of innocent people, such as dissidents and human rights activists.

"Assange is not charged simply because he is a publisher," Terwilliger said.

The new charges

The charges announced on Thursday all relate to chapters in the history of WikiLeaks before its involvement in Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.

They include allegations that Assange violated the Espionage Act provisions that prohibit a conspiracy to obtain, receive and disclose national defense information; charges related to the attempted cracking of computer passwords; and unlawful receipt of sensitive information such as State Department communications and Defense Department logs.

Prosecutors also added a charge related to the disclosure of national defense information that included the unredacted names of human sources in places such as China, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Court documents described a series of chats between Assange and Manning in March 2010 in which Assange allegedly encourages Manning more than once to obtain documents.

The defense

Assange has long argued that he is a journalist no different from any other reporter protected by press freedom rights in the West or the First Amendment in the United States.

The U.S. criminal case boils down to a reporter — Assange — encouraging a source — Manning — to give him a story, Assange and his attorneys argue. That's not only not against the law, they and supporters say, but also going forward would cause a deep chill in the ability of the press to report on the government.

British police officers stand on duty outside the Embassy of Ecuador in London on May 20. Assange was arrested last month after being pushed out the embassy, where he had been living since 2012.
Adrian Dennis / AFP/Getty Images

"These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavor to inform the public about actions that have [been] taken by the U.S. government," said Assange attorney Barry Pollack.

"This is madness," WikiLeaks wrote on its Twitter account.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, reiterated the possible risk to journalists.

"Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest, irrespective of the Justice Department's assertion that Assange is not a journalist," he said.

Ben Wizner — director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project — blamed the president.

"This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration's attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment," he said.

Manning, meanwhile, is in custody in Northern Virginia after apparently refusing to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney's Office in the grand jury proceeding that yielded the indictment unsealed on Thursday.

A judge ordered Manning to be jailed after she said she would not testify against Assange.

The defendant

Assange is in British custody following his ejection earlier this year from his long self-imposed confinement in the Embassy of Ecuador in London. A British judge ordered him to be jailed in connection with bail jumping.

Swedish and American authorities both are asking London to extradite Assange to face criminal charges.

Swedish prosecutors reopened a investigation into rape allegations against Assange once he left the embassy. It isn't clear which capital — Stockholm or Washington — will take priority with British authorities in evaluating whether to extradite him.

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The Justice Department today unveiled new charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Right now, Assange is in a British prison for jumping bail there. But he's a wanted man in both the U.S. and Sweden. To talk about how these new charges complicate his situation, we're joined by NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. She's been following the U.S. investigation for years. Welcome back to the studio, Carrie.


CORNISH: What can you tell us about these new charges against Julian Assange?

JOHNSON: Remember, Julian Assange already faced one charge - conspiracy to engage in computer hacking - for his role in the leak by former Army Private Chelsea Manning. Manning gave WikiLeaks State Department cables, war logs and assessments of detainees at Guantanamo. Today, a grand jury in Virginia slapped Julian Assange with 17 more charges. These are extremely serious, alleging violations of the Espionage Act. That includes conspiracy to obtain, receive and disclose national defense information and attempting to crack a password to help Chelsea Manning get into a database to obtain even more secrets.

CORNISH: These sound way more serious than the first charge related to hacking. So are prosecutors going in a different direction?

JOHNSON: Yeah, in some ways, they are. The new charges describe chats between Manning and Assange in March 2010 where Assange was basically soliciting state secrets, according to the Justice Department. And prosecutors here are also charging Assange with publishing information, something the Obama administration never wanted to do. Normally, prosecutors would charge the leaker of the information, not the person who published it. But authorities at the Justice Department insist Assange is being charged narrowly here. The assistant attorney general for national security, John Demers, told reporters Julian Assange is no journalist. Look at the entirety of his conduct.

CORNISH: Can we go back to that for a second? If he's being charged with publishing material, what are the implications for the First Amendment and for press freedom?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Julian Assange is certain to raise a First Amendment defense. He basically says if he faces prison time, so would The New York Times, The Washington Post and other news outlets. In fact, Bruce Brown, who runs the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is just out with a statement saying these charges pose a dire threat to all journalists. The fear is this legal theory could be used to criminalize core reporting activity some of us do every day. The Justice Department says there is a difference, that Assange was warned by the State Department at the time not to publish some of these documents. But he persisted, published the names of human sources in Iran, China and Syria. There is no evidence any of those people were killed. But prosecutors say they only have to show there was a potential for harm to those people in order to succeed in court.

CORNISH: In the meantime, Swedish authorities revived a rape case against Assange, suggesting that they want a turn at prosecuting him. What are the odds that he'll ever make it to the U.S. to face trial?

JOHNSON: That's going to be up to British authorities. Assange will have a chance to make his legal arguments before a British judge. He's argued he's a journalist, and also he's being singled out for political reasons because he exposed secrets about U.S. wrongdoing and alleged war crimes. Here's why that matters, Audie. The extradition treaty between the U.K. and the U.S. has an exception for political offenses. And so if they find that there is a political element here, he may never wind up back here in the U.S., and he may wind up in Sweden first, which also wants him.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.